Collision 94: May, 2024

Nomadic Trees © Karel Verhoeven & Thomas Paelinck

Multispecies Mourning in Contemporary Aesthetic Practices

Nele Buyst

Introduction: Moving Nomadic Trees

Intuition has been around for much longer, but you must start somewhere. Why not start with a personal story going on at the time of writing? In September 2023 the ‘Nomadic Trees’ – a tiny urban forest consisting of trees in pink containers, designed to offer people a nice place to sit, with wooden benches on pink metal – were moved from their home base, a red-paved square surrounded by social housing on the edge of the historic center of Ghent (Flanders, Belgium) to an art school on the other side of the historic center. Residents on the square, who had warmly welcomed the trees in their habitat four years earlier, were in tears. Although feeling dubious about my success, I had organized this move. The trees were part of the legacy of artist Karel Verhoeven, my late husband, who had died two years earlier, and his former classmate and garden architect Thomas Paelinck. The idea of a small forest, moving around the empty squares in the historic city center of Ghent, grew out of Karel and Thomas’s frustration that the city council continued to prioritize economic activities over green spaces in the center. When the city council piloted a project and set aside a budget for citizens to realize their own ideas, Thomas and Karel proposed the ‘Nomadic Trees,’ after which the project was elected by inhabitants of the city. These Nomadic Trees were more easily dreamt than created. It took over a year to realize the project: the trees needed to be big enough for their branches to cast shadow in the summer, while the containers that held their roots needed to be strong enough to carry the weight of the trees and to offer a place to sit for passers-by; materials had to be carefully chosen for their aesthetic qualities; equally, they could not be too heavy, as they were to be moved. When in spring 2019 the trees finally arrived in full bloom, people warmly welcomed them. Moving from square to square, they initiated interaction, encounter and connection. People who passed by noticed the blossoms, which colored the same pink as the trees’ containers. Whoever wanted a break from strolling around the center could have a seat on the wooden benches and enjoy the rest. When in 2020 all traffic in the city came to a standstill due to the lockdown, this forest was moved to the (previously) busiest squares of the city and functioned as a poetic counter-move. In 2021 the budget got tight and the city made clear it did not want to take care of these trees any longer. As Karel had died that year, and Thomas had made clear even earlier on that he did not want to continue the project on his own, we – Karel’s sister and myself – had to look for a solution. The city had put the trees back at their initial home base, waiting for a solution to be found. Moving them was an emotional event, not only for us, Karel’s family, but also for the people who had lived next to these trees for the past couple of years. They had become neighbors, as the presence of the trees allowed new life and movement on the square, from children playing, people smoking and chatting, to bees enjoying the blossoms. I have an academic interest in ecological grief and have been reading into the subject for a while, but here I was witnessing it: people crying for the trees they had lived next to. The fact that the two largest trees needed to be pruned to half their size to pass underneath the tramway and the sound of a chainsaw added to the drama. At once, those trees were symbolizing three different kinds of grief: they had their roots in the grief of citizens for a lack of green in the city; they gave shape to our grief over the loss of our husband, father, friend, son; and they became a source of grief for their neighbors with whom they had shared their habitat, and who did not want to see them leave.

In this essay I will reflect on some contemporary aesthetic practices through the lens of ecological grief. Framing these practices as ecological mourning practices helps me to develop thoughts on the affective, ethical and political meaning of mourning for a multispecies world, and on the possibilities these practices create for developing an ethics of care for multispecies communities in our cities.

Nomadic Trees © Karel Verhoeven & Thomas Paelinck

Mourning, aesthetics and ethics

If grief is the experience, mourning is the shape that it is given, the way an experience is put into words. When people grieve, they engage in mourning practices, which I understand as a culturally articulated response to affect. These practices are often aesthetic, as philosopher Kathleen Higgins argues in Aesthetics and the Containment of Grief (2020). She analyzes the close link between aesthetics and grief, connecting her personal experience to what she observes in the broader culture. She explains how aesthetic practices facilitate the restoration of coherence to our experience, as

a matter of channeling or restricting the flow of confusing emotions, a matter of stopping a rupture, finding a secure space, and using a vessel to gather and carry contents. Aesthetic projects enable the bereaved to reengage with the world of the living, without abandoning bonds with the deceased.

Although the experience of grief – even around shared losses – is irrevocably individual, mourning practices are an important part of the culture of a community. They make it possible to share and communicate the experience, to materialize sentiments, and “to alleviate sharp pain to turn it into tranquil sadness”.1 In mainstream Western culture, the common conceptions of grief and mourning usually involve people who have lost someone with whom they had a meaningful relationship. Trees, as in the example above, are less typical objects of grief, not to mention smaller organisms that collectively make up an environment. Without a recognizable object, we are not traditionally inclined to speak of grief or mourning. In recent years, however, phrases that point to the negative (psychological) impact of environmental loss have become more common in use. Terms like “ecological grief”, “eco-anxiety” or “solastalgia” were coined by scientists in the first two decennia of the 21st century to describe negative emotions that arise as a consequence of ecological decline.2 These terms name different kinds of suffering from the loss of familiar relationships with our environment. How then are we to shape and constrain these shared affects? And why is it important that we do so?

In The Ecology of Grief, published in 1992,3 Phyllis Windle did pioneering work on recognizing the emotions she and fellow ecologists experienced while witnessing a disease in dogwoods, a tree she learned to love during her fieldwork. Working in the science of relationships, ecologists are often the first to notice broad ecological losses. Windle emphasizes the connection between the experience of this emotion and the passion for her work: “These attachments may be necessary and important. Good science cannot proceed without deep emotional investment on the part of the scientist.”4 Writing at the end of the last century, Windle acknowledges how she is tempted to dismiss these emotions as “irrational, inappropriate, and anthropomorphic”,5 having learned to separate emotions from doing science. But as someone who works as a chaplain next to her work as an ecologist, she knows the value of grieving well.

People emerge from grief with new insights about their relationship to the deceased and renewed energy for loving again. The benefits might extend far beyond our individual recovery. (…) Also, we shall need passion, commitment, creativity, energy, and concentration. We shall have none of these if we fail to grieve (alone and with each other) for the magnificent trees, the lovely animals, and the beautiful places that we are losing.

Windle formulates a call to action, as the experience of grief is precisely what inspires and urges her to take action. In his description of the mourning of crows,6 field philosopher Thom van Dooren does not only do productive work in opening up the experience of grief and mourning to more-than-human species, but he also points at the change of course in the crows’ flight ways it causes. The birds respond to the death of their conspecific with a change in their course, as death signals danger. How then, he wonders, should we as humans respond to the enormous loss of species and biodiversity in recent years? His answer: we should practice how to grieve well for the more-than-human loss we are suffering.

Affect informs our ethical response, as Judith Butler points out while discussing the suffering that is and is not pictured in state-supported media in times of war.7 The suffering depicted in the images used to represent war is both informed by and informs our normative conception of which lives are grievable and which are not. Similarly, our mourning practices, the cultural translation of our response to the loss of a meaningful relationship, are informed by and in turn inform our normative conception of which relationships are meaningful to us. If we are to expand our conception of what lives to grieve, and what lives to care for, it is helpful to turn to contemporary aesthetic practices and look at them through the lens of this shared experience of ecological grief. These aesthetic practices usually take place in the margins of mainstream culture and may function as a catalyst to a broader range of lives to grieve, a broader range of lives to care for.

Nomadic Trees: Multispecies mourning and forward-looking memory

The project Nomadic Trees had its roots in a perceived lack of green in the urban environment. When the trees at first arrived at their home base, it became immediately clear that they made their neighborhood more lively and beautiful. The previously empty square now allowed for children to play on the staircases of the containers, for neighbors to sit together, and for insects to enjoy the trees’ blossoms. These trees took up an active role in their environment. What they brought to their surroundings was more than just a nice setting. People cannot do without the things they offer: air, shadow, social contact, play. They were not just the background setting for human activity, to speak with Bruno Latour,8 but actively shaped the life around them. Aesthetic considerations led the creation process. The trees are chosen for their considerable size, to make their presence felt. The pink of their blossoms returns in the color of the containers. The containers are made so that their function cannot be directly deduced from their shape. The warm wooden platforms, used to finish the containers, serve as benches to sit on, as steps to play on, the metal blocks are used as jumps for skaters... They allow life to move around them, without directing it precisely. Their interaction with each other and the square, the spaces in between are carefully conceived and drawn out. The result feels casual, beautiful and soothing. Crucially, the trees were not only a shaping force when they were on the square: they created a memory and a vision for a possible future when they were gone. To move from one square to another, these trees travelled through the city center. This made for a good story, and squares that became a temporary home to these trees underwent a genuine metamorphosis. As they were housed in containers, the trees required a lot of care. During hot summers they needed 600 liters of water a week. The care they require establishes a relationship between the people and the trees. Both suffer, and the fact that they need each other to get through hot summers creates a previously unimagined form of solidarity and an awareness of vulnerability.

Nomadic Trees © Karel Verhoeven & Thomas Paelinck

A sensitive reader might see their vulnerability and dependency reflected in the trees. A critical reader could argue these trees weren’t in good health as their roots couldn’t touch ground. The trees were under stress as they could not grow the way they would if their roots were offered the right space. That critical reader might argue these trees are ghost figures, more a memory of what trees could be than healthy organisms. Both readers would be correct. When people talk of the moving trees, now gone from the city center to a private place, they commemorate life as it had been around the square. Telling the story of how life around the square was when the trees were there could be interpreted as a narrative mourning practice. This narrative effort is part of the work to make lost lives matter, “to really get” what this loss means.9 It is a “deliberate act of sustained remembrance”10 that has as much to do with future life as with the loss. Looking at mourning as a kind of refusal to abandon the loss reminds me of feminist philosopher Sue Campbell’s work on memory. According to Campbell, memory work is an ongoing conversation within the complex network of relationships that shape us. It is relational and dynamic. Activities and contexts of sharing memories with others are not merely occasions for expressing already-formed identities, but they are central occasions on which our identities get created.11 Talking about the different life the trees enabled on squares in the city is a way of visualizing a different possible future for these squares. Attending to how, what, and why we remember is an activity that might help to shape the future.

Gardening: Sympoetic making and caring, making time within production time

Anthropologist Sophie Chao has written on the mourning practices of the Indigenous Marind communities of rural Merauke West-Papua,12 whose intimate and ancestral relations to native plants, animals, and ecosystems are threatened by mass deforestation and mono-crop oil palm expansion. She describes how the Marind communities turn to weaving sago bags to mourn the lands they lived on, now lost to growing oil palm developments. They collectively create songs to commemorate the animals that lose their lives as roadkill on the newly built roads. They plant bamboo plants to reanimate the forests lost to the monocrops. As culture reflects ontology, the Marind’s weaving, singing and planting echo the acknowledgment of their entanglement with more-than-human life. Their mourning practices intermingle human hands and tears with the surrounding landscape. Looking into the aesthetic practices of a community that lives in close connection to their surroundings is illuminating to someone living in the global North, where aesthetics are driven to the realm of arts and design and divided from other domains of living. The Marind’s mourning practices reflect how the aesthetic and the day-to-day experience come together. In his essay “The Live Creature”,13 philosopher John Dewey explains how aesthetic practices in industrialized communities have been pushed to the side of mainstream interest as a consequence of mechanization. He argues that this division deeply affects day-to-day life. To grasp the aesthetic – as it is often understood and analyzed, departing from a close analysis of a work of art – Dewey returns to the experience of the common that is “lacking aesthetic perceptions that are necessary ingredients of happiness”.14 The Marind’s mourning practices illustrate how these practices are deeply rooted in daily life and how they function as a form of care, of restoring the relationship with their surroundings, the dead, and the community.

Sympoiesis Garden © Eline De Clercq

Thinking with Chao’s analysis of weaving, singing and planting as mourning practices and with Dewey’s diagnosis of the lack of aesthetics in the everyday in his time (and today) sheds light on Eline De Clercq’s gardening project in the Royal Academy for the Arts in Antwerp. In gardening the Belgian painter finds a practice that weaves the false bifurcation of culture and nature back together. De Clercq took to gardening as early as in her studies, when she volunteered in the botanical garden of Ghent University. Co-creating and caring for existing multispecies communities in the garden, functioned as a counterbalance for a solitary artistic practice, which is conceived very individually. Developing a community garden as an artistic project puts into practice Dewey’s idea of aesthetics as a necessary ingredient of the everyday. The name of De Clercq’s project, “Sympoiesis Garden”, refers to Donna Haraway’s notion of “sympoiesis”.15 It means ‘making together’, “critters at stake in each other in every mixing and turning of the terran compost pile”. The garden had been maintained in a traditional way, with lots of mowing, to keep weeds under control. When Eline created the Sympoiesis Garden, she aimed to restore biodiversity and habitat, to let different species and relationships between them flourish, to remember forgotten knowledge of seasons, plants and animals. Together with students she takes up the role of caregiver. The garden has become a place for students, artists and teachers of the academy where they can learn “to recognize, understand, restore, build and strengthen ecology”.16 It is a contact zone for different “critters”17 (plants, human and non-human animals, soil, fungi…) to get to know each other. It creates a rare place and time stripped from duties, goals and deadlines:

It does not have to be beautiful./ It doesn’t have to provide fruits or flowers or any other goods./ It doesn’t have to look finished./ It doesn’t have to collect rare or special species./ It doesn’t have to be big or small./ It doesn’t have to prove anything./ It is not about humans, it is about ecology and we are a part of it.18

The garden creates a counterforce to the powers that be, the dominant mode of conduct at the academy, driven by deadlines and hierarchies. The ‘I’ dissolves into a ‘we’, without a clear alignment of who the ‘we’ actually is: big and small organisms are all at work and at stake in each other at the same time. The object of care of the gardeners is like the object of the Marind’s grief and mourning: not a particular organism or species, but rather the relationships between them: “past, present and (im)possible”, they envision how to respond to lost relationships, how to carry responsibility. They are “worlding” practices in the words of Donna Haraway,19 at the same time reflecting on what is and what could be, speaking to affective response and informing ethical behavior. Gardening distributes responsibility: there is not one ‘critter’ who is in control of the garden, as all are at work at the same time, be it in different timeframes. Taking care of multispecies assemblages involves thinking with the slow time of geological processes and shorter ecological processes by which organisms, plants and humans grow, flourish, decompose and regenerate the top layers of soil.

Sympoiesis Garden © Eline De Clercq

Like the mourning practices of the Marind, this praxis does more than revive lost ecology. It carries an ethical and imaginative power within its collective practical labour. These practices serve both “to remember and to refuse, to resist and to recreate.”20 The garden is a place where humans can take time to re-establish relations that have been lost, that pay attention to other relations than the typical ones at work in the Academy of Arts, that diversify typical hierarchies and challenge traditional binaries between human and non-human, student and teacher, nature and culture, use and obsolescence... The way De Clercq conceives of gardening as an artistic practice proposes an ethics of care for humans and more-than-humans. This ethics is both inspired by and the result of taking time to get to know the other, to restore relations with the world around us. The materiality of gardening is important in this. Getting to know and care for other critters involves all senses: we see, feel, hear, smell, taste. This sensual experience and esthetic understanding ties in with the affect, which in turn leads to a particular ethics. These ways of knowing are all closely entangled. As Puig de la Bellacasa puts it:

What soil is thought to be affects the ways in which it is cared for, and vice versa, modes of care have effects in what soils become. Paying attention to practices of care can be a way of getting involved with glimpses of alternative livable relationalities, with other possible worlds in the making, “alterontologies” at the heart of dominant configurations.21 Putting our attention to getting to know unknown species may open up our understanding of what we have lost and influence our attitude and ethical behavior, introducing an ethics of care to previously unknown neighbors. It may open up customary frames of which lives we consider as grievable.22

Gardening as an aesthetic practice helps us to understand aesthetically and affectively that humans and more-than-humans are at stake in each other. Knowing this interdependency and relationality alone, however, is not enough. We are not simply entangled in each other’s lives, we are part of an existing community with an established hierarchy of norms and values. Contemporary society and policies are structured around the needs and wants of (some) humans (more than others), unevenly distributed rights, power and responsibilities over those who count as subjects and those who do not, or much less so. In arbitrary order: Western over non-Western, settler over indigenous, male over female, human over more-than-human… Systemic inequalities condition the status quo. The recognition that all life is precarious and interdependent is not enough to overthrow existing asymmetrical power lines. Looking at practices of care and mourning to re-value neglected relationships with the more-than-human world should include a re-evaluation of the nature of existing unequal relationships. Acts of care engage in affective, ethical and political matters, but they also require a material practice. As Maria Puig de la Bellacasa puts it:

Can we think of care as an obligation that traverses the nature/ culture bifurcation without simply reinstating the binaries and moralism of anthropocentric ethics? How can engaging with care help us to think of ethical ‘obligations’ in human-decentered cosmologies?23

Can engaging with care and mourning practices help us to reshape relationships, shed light on relationships we have neglected, and help us disrupt existing social hierarchies? The Sympoiesis Garden uses the practice of gardening as a starting point to think with the lives and the behavior of more-than-human species and “to collectively challenge existing gender norms, to act against climate change, to perform a decolonized and intersectional practice”.24 It creates a pocket within the Academy where existing binaries and hierarchies are challenged, a place where by restoring habitat and creating biodiversity students and teachers can learn to recognize the past and present and how to carry responsibility in this layered story.

Mudgrams: Distributing agency and authorship, embodied knowledge

Mudgrams © Dries Segers

A place to think through material relations with the more-than-human world is also what Dries Segers creates within his research-based artistic practice. Working in the field of the visual arts, and with a background in photography, he creates what he calls a “generative photography”. The images or objects he creates are often collaborations with elements such as water, sand and light. Segers works as the facilitator of these image-making processes. He shares his authorship with the elements, who work as contributors. Not one actor has control over the outcome. This process of letting go, resetting expectations, reorganizing and reassembling, focusing on what parts of the process you can control and take responsibility over, is similar to what happens in mourning processes. For Mudgrams for example, he collected soil samples from “historically exploited and polluted zones”, such as the Canal Zone in Amsterdam, 3M in Zwijndrecht, INEOS in Antwerp, Arcelor Group in Düsseldorf. Segers makes use of the chemical composition of the mud and combines it with sodium carbonate and vitamin C to turn the mud into an ecological developer. He pours this mud onto the responsive surface of film, and exposes it to light, creating the circumstances for the mud to become fixed as an image. Segers develops new photographic technology to create soil maps that directly make use of the matter they consist of to visualize and speculate on their contamination and their future and current states. He puts into practice Haraway’s claim that “the question who to think with is extremely material”. Segers thinks with actors that are often overlooked. On his website,25 the Mudgrams are presented as a collaboration with polluted soils. The matter of the work is presented as performing an indispensable part of the making process. This has political meaning. It includes matter on a different level in existing discourses. The works challenge our traditional idea of authorship and make explicit what we are used to calling the agency of non-human actors and powers.

Anthropologist Tim Ingold contests this notion of agency regarding matter or elements: “It is not”, he says, “that things have agency; rather they are actively present in their doing – in their carrying on or perdurance. Things are, and their being is a form of knowing in itself.” Ingold’s philosophy – and Segers’ work seems to follow that – does not allow the meaning of matter to be articulated in written language. As Ingold claims:

Things become, as does our knowledge of them. It follows that our primary focus should not be on the ontologies of things but on their ontogenies, not on philosophies but on generations of being. This shift of focus has important political ramifications. For it suggests that things are far from closed to one another, each wrapped up in its own, ultimately impenetrable world of being. On the contrary, they are fundamentally open, and all are participants in one indivisible world of becoming. Multiple ontologies signify multiple worlds, but multiple ontogenies signify one world. And since, in their growth or movement, the things of the world answer to one another, or correspond, they are also responsible. All responsibility depends on responsiveness.26

Mudgrams – Gasoline station © Dries Segers

Segers’ response lies in developing a new technology for photography. It explicitly moves away from the mere visual representation of matter; his method involves traveling, digging, touching, sensing. He is closely engaged with the materials he uses. The inclusion of all his senses follows a feminist tradition that rejects the dominant mode of knowledge creation characterized by intellectual distance and abstraction. His generative photography “deepens awareness of the embodied character of perception, affect and thinking, it intensifies a sense of the co-transformative, in the flesh effects of connections between beings.”27 The images created with the mud samples are direct and situated forms of knowledge. They problematize dualisms between subject and object, between knowledge and the world, between science and art, between ethics and science. The poet Kae Tempest’s friendly imperative functions as a motto on Segers’ website: “ask your hands to know the things they hold.” And again Ingold informs us of what this might mean:

An acknowledgment of what we owe to this world for our sensory formation might help mend a relationship with the environment that surrounds and sustains us, which currently seems terminally broken. It means thinking of this environment not as a repository of data for collection and analysis but as a place of study, wherein we learn not about but from its manifold human and more-than-human inhabitants. And it means leading a life alongside these other inhabitants that is both attentive and responsive to what they have to tell us – or in a word, an ethical life.28


With this essay I investigated how contemporary aesthetic practices give shape to collectively shared sentiments of ecological grief that color the first decades of the 21st century, and how these practices work speculatively to inform an ethics of care for a multispecies world. With ecologist Phyllis Windle and philosopher Thom van Dooren I have argued why it is important to grieve for the loss of more-than-human lives. With Judith Butler I have explored how mourning practices both reflect and shape our conception of grievable lives. Drawing on the example of anthropologist Sophie Chao’s description of mourning practices of the Marind for multispecies losses, I have taken a closer look at several contemporary aesthetic practices inspired by sentiments of ecological grief and read them through the lens of mourning. Mourning practices always do more than materialize and constrain grief. In choosing to tell of the lives lost, we refuse to let them go. We think of different lives possible. In choosing to hold a memory together, we may inspire and shape a possible future. Principles are inseparable from practices. Ethics, or rather ethos, is what grounds choices that are made while creating something. The ethos that shapes the practices mentioned, forms examples for an ethics of care for the web of relationships we are part of.29 During these processes of creation, these material acts of care, those who create channel their affect and choose their values. In choosing an embodied way of care, we refuse a detached and abstract way of dealing with the world that is the dominant mode today. As Joan Tronto points out,30 the work of care is not to be embraced innocently: as care work is in most societies unequally distributed by gender, caste, class, race and ethnicity, it very often is the work of women, often women of color. Equally, the work of mourning, the daily repetitive work, the emotional labor that continues after the public ceremony, is in contemporary Western society often situated in the domestic realm, a gendered space, typically still attributed to women. In taking the lens of mourning to frame these practices of care, I follow a tradition of feminist thinkers, who engage with the disruptive potential of care, who think with care to contest dominant norms and values.


I started writing this article in September 2023 and I am finishing this draft a couple of months later, in February 2024, while Israel has launched its asymmetrical war against the Palestinian people. Writing about mourning practices for the more-than-human is at times, in the light of the systematized murder of thousands of people, not only absurd but even obscene. After reading the Palestinian-American poet Noor Hindi’s poem ‘Fuck your lecture on craft. My people are Dying’,31 I felt paralyzed for several days, unable to think of anything but the thousands of deaths each day. The poem did, however, confirm the power of poetry and of small everyday practices of resistance, of pushing on culture to change thoughts, practice, and thus potentially change course. We have a lot to mourn for, so we might as well learn how.


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